By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – It had been two years since my meeting in person with Gov. Eric Holcomb to do the annual year end interview. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Zoom sessions this past year. With more than 17,000 Hoosiers dead, making it the most lethal health sequence in Indiana history, almost the entire interview dealt with that subject Tuesday morning.

“I noticed you don’t have Gov. Goodrich’s portrait in here,” I said to Holcomb. Civil War Gov. Oliver P. Morton peered out of his frame above the fireplace while fellow Navy veteran Gov. Joe Kernan and the first governor, Jonathan Jennings, adorned other walls. “That’s a good thought,” Holcomb responded.

But Gov. James Goodrich, who held office during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 played virtually no role in the government response to that pandemic which killed an estimated 10,000 Hoosiers. He was a former state Republican chairman who began the layout for the initial state highway system as well as reorganizing state government.

Holcomb found himself facing the pandemic in February 2020. Last October, he told HPI that the only pandemic playbook on state government shelves was one for the flu.

After shutting the state down for nearly six weeks, then gradually reopening through the summer, Holcomb’s modus operandi was always to “manage” his way through the crisis. A year ago, Holcomb and the nearly 7 million Hoosiers appeared to be anticipating the vaccine. Today, he is confronted with a fifth surge of patients filling up hospital ICUs, while about half of all Hoosiers have rejected taking the vaccine.

“When you look at about any measure, hospitalizations, death rates, it is all 70% to 80% unvaccinated, week after week after week,” Holcomb said. “These stories are real that I pick up on a daily basis, people who are taken from us prematurely, who say ‘I just didn’t think it would happen to me.’”

According to Indiana State Department of Health statistics, since the start of the pandemic unvaccinated Hoosiers account for 97.7% of COVID-19 infections; 99.96% of COVID-19 hospitalizations; and 99.98% of COVID-19 deaths.

Holcomb is still immersed in a legal battle with Republican General Assembly leaders and Attorney General Todd Rokita over who can gavel in a special General Assembly session and whether it will be state or local officials who call the shots.

While Gov. Goodrich confronted the 1918-19 pandemic with a hands-off approach, Holcomb has created the Governor’s Public Health Commission that will reassess what has happened over the past year and what changes should be made. “This coincides perfectly with one of the reasons that came out of this, we’ve gone decades without major attention on our local health departments, and the state and local health delivery models,” Holcomb said. “That’s what this Governor’s Public Health Commission is all about. It’s structure, delivery, funding.”

Holcomb enters his sixth General Assembly session as governor seeking to balance “individual freedom” that some feel was crimped by employer and federal pandemic mandates while expressing concern for what’s in the best interest of the broader community.

Here is our HPI Interview with Gov. Holcomb:

HPI: I remember remarking to you that the opioid epidemic was the story of our time,  but here we are entering a second winter with the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you see this ending, because that, obviously, is going to be the story of your two administrations?

Holcomb: I’m resigned to the fact that it’s going to be here until it’s not and it’s going to take people who deny the vaccination prematurely.

HPI: I figured the vaccine hesitancy would be the 5% to 10% that a normal school corporation might have to deal with in a school year. A year ago, I never dreamed that we would be here with half our population resisting. Did that surprise you?

Holcomb: We’re a pretty independent-minded lot who tend to not like people telling us what to do, what not to do in general.

HPI: So it’s that Jacksonian streak that took shape just after our founding that is still driving individual responses.

Holcomb: Injecting something into your body is about as serious as it comes. What is surprising to me, if anything is about that, is the data that is available and there is very compelling (evidence), much more so than any other vaccine that has come to market, about how effective it is. When you look at about any measure, hospitalizations, death rates, it is all 70% to 80% unvaccinated, week after week after week. These stories are real that I pick up on a daily basis, people who are taken from us prematurely, who say, “I just didn’t think it would happen to me.” They just didn’t think it would happen to them, whether they are 23 or had it, laid up for one or two months in a hospital, and they’re still not over it after they get out of the hospital. I wish people would just deal with the facts. I’m reminded of the times in the 1960s or the 1860s, I often wonder what would have happened if we had had social media in the 1860s, what would have happened next.

HPI: I have a nine-month-old granddaughter, Katina Rose, and she’s the only one in our family who is unvaccinated. I don’t see her as much as I would like because of exposure if I go to an IU game or a theater, even though I’m vaccinated and boosted. So we have this concept of “individual freedom” colliding with “person responsibility” and half of the population doesn’t appear to care about the impact on their community. What are your thoughts on that?

Holcomb: That’s the rub.

HPI: We’re going to see this conflict play out in the General Assembly in the coming three months.

Holcomb: What do liberty and freedom mean when it affects others, adversely, maybe fatally? Those are the discussions we will have in these halls in our state, and I think rightly should be made in this state. I took exception to the federal mandates for constitutional reasons. I’m not an attorney, but I was suspect of the constitutionality, federally, using OSHA. It seems unprecedented and for it to be unprecedented in this time of uncertainty, I thought it was counter-productive and would probably bring about unintended consequences. For us, as a state government, we have to deliver services that are critical to this state’s population, as a matter of fact, are required. For those federal mandates to come down on a state, that puts our ability into question to deliver those services. Whereas we might be able to figure out, as we did, ways to deliver service that didn’t mandate vaccine, even though I believe in it, even though I promote it, even though I encourage it every day of the week.

HPI: During 2020, you had the weekly Zoom press conferences, and you were given high marks for transparency and focus. After you gave what I call the “light at the end of the tunnel” speech in late March, you pulled back and stopped having them. You’re a graduate of the “Mitch Daniels School of Using Your Political Capital.” Why didn’t you barnstorm the state urging people to vaccinate and protect themselves and their communities?

Holcomb: It was absolutely counter to what I heard as I got around the state.

HPI: Having said that, we watched West Virginia Gov. Justice and Ohio Gov. DeWine try to coax and incentivize their populations with stipends and lotteries that didn’t work out so well. What were you seeing that moved the needle and what was counter-productive?

Holcomb: I don’t pretend to be a know-it-all or have a crystal ball. All I know is I was tethered to all 92 counties and what was going on on the ground. I’ll be in Fort Wayne tomorrow, I’ll be in Upland on Friday, I was in Oldenburg last Saturday. That is my focus group. Those interactions are what I hear. And what I heard when the vaccine came on the scene and we started having the ability to manage this ourselves and that is the answer. We absolutely have to make sure the resources are available as a state.

HPI: And you did, successfully.

Holcomb: I mean testing, and 95% of our kids are in class right now. So when I get out and about, and if I do weekly announcements, people know COVID is with us. And they know where to get vaccinated if they need to. But what I said at the very beginning is we have to balance our lives safely, our lives and our livelihoods. What people were telling me, “It would have looked like he was just milking the promotion of COVID” and people would have said, “Get on with the other aspects of the job.” Make sure our GDP continues to grow and make sure that when COVID is no longer with us, as we manage our way through, but if you get out into Rochester or Vincennes, they’ll say, “We know COVID is here. What are you doing to bring us more opportunity?” That’s GDP, that’s revenue, that’s single family home permits, that’s housing, that’s new job commitments in their areas, that’s more headquarters moving into the state of Indiana. We’re already at $6.5 billion in capital assets this year; we were $5.6 billion last year, which was a good year. It’s because we didn’t take our eye off the ball on the other side of the ledger. When COVID is behind us for good, whenever that may be – and it could be sooner for you if you get vaccinated – whenever that may be, we will have created real separation between us and the rest of the competition. Not because we’re in denial about COVID-19; it’s here! We’re doing that. But it’s because we stepped forward, the State of Indiana, and said, “Here’s a bold idea: Let’s regionalize the whole state.” Counties self-determining what region they want to be in. There’s $500 million that 92 counties stepped forward and said, “We really want to chase $1.5 billion.” That equated to $15 billion on the outside. That’s $15 billion that would have never stepped forward in an organized way. Housing, some $4 billion of that is housing. Transportation. Marketing, like we’ve never seen it before. Workforce development, quality of place items. So for us, how do we grow at the end of the day opportunity? At the end of the day that is quality of life, workforce development programs, making sure our economy is growing. In 2017 our GDP was $353 billion; it’s $417 billion now.

HPI: As I researched the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918/19, Gov. Goodrich and President Wilson never commented on it, never took action. Everything that happened occurred at the local level, with decisions made by local health officers. So are we seeing the perfect circle, regarding how the General Assembly has reacted and what they’ll want to do this coming winter?

Holcomb: Absolutely. This coincides perfectly with one of the things that came out of this, we’ve gone decades without major attention on our local health departments, and the state and local health delivery models. That’s what this Governor’s Public Health Commission is all about. It’s structure, delivery, funding. So once again, we’re thoughtfully delivering, just like the Teacher Pay Commission. We’re putting in the hard work to provide the data to the legislature, so when we arrive in 2023 in a long budget session, we can make some real decisions about health care costs, quality and delivery, what kind of funding levels do we need? Where are we deficient? We know generally what they are, but where specifically? That’s going to be a big topic we tackle, but we have to be equipped with information before we do.

HPI: You covered my sixth question about the Public Health Commission. When you talk to legislators, and I know they are reacting to their business communities and the mandates, it would seem to be the best course would be to get the pandemic over with and then figure what worked, what didn’t, and what changes to make, which is what the commission will do.

Holcomb: Different legislators, mayors, commissioners and business owners react to their circumstance. Legislators have to collect all of those different opinions, and I do the same thing. When I am out and about I’ve got my ear to the ground. One thing that helped us, pre-vaccine, weather the storm and get tough to the point of the vaccine, we were tethered to businesses, schools, hospitals, like never before. It reminded me of my days in the military; it was a joint exercise on a morning, noon and night basis: Department of Corrections, INDOT, the state police, and the ramifications of every decision that was made. One of which was correctional facilities. So when you talk about quarantining at home, that’s much different than quarantining in a cell. The violence that’s occurring on the inside is at a level that we have not seen in a long, long time. I am literally calling people in, our employees in, to meet with them and let them know that we’re here to help, through therapeutic means. I sat down with one correctional officer and she had seen violence, and I asked her, “How can you continue to go in to work?” and go into a room where the concrete is bloodstained and she said, “I have to go back in there, that’s my family.” Her coworkers were her family. “They need me.” I just talked about the rosy economic picture, the wages going up to $27.88 through the IEDC ... well, when you’ve got someone making $19 an hour that’s having who knows what being thrown at them through those bars, and seen the violence, and having one correctional worker surrounded by 150 inmates, it prompts me to say, “$19 an hour? They can go to fastfood restaurant and make $18 to $19 an hour. That again prompts me to say we’re going to have to do some things in 2023 to continue to deliver the services required for our population.

HPI: Post Roe v. Wade, legislation is going to come that will address fetal viability timelines as well as where women in poverty who can’t afford a trip to another state can deal with their dilemma. Any thoughts or guidelines on how that process will go?

Holcomb: It’s a constant temptation to opine or predict ...

HPI: I know Roe hasn’t been repealed and I know Chief Justice Roberts saved Obamacare.

Holcomb: To get inside the head of those who wear the robes, and we’re not going to know their decision until June or July. I like to know the facts. The more facts you have the more certainty will serve in the decisions we make. We’ll track anything that comes through the legislative process this year and then deal with reality on the ground once the decision is made. If there is a decision.

Here are other excerpts from from Gov. Holcomb’s year-end media interviews:

NWI Times, Dan Carden: Gov. Eric Holcomb has two simple words of advice for Hoosiers as COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths once again surge amid the holiday season — “Get vaccinated. I’m convinced that the vaccine works,” Holcomb said Monday in an exclusive interview with The Times. “The numbers are compelling, no doubt about it. You’d have to ignore them to come to a different conclusion.” The Republican noted state data show that in recent weeks unvaccinated individuals accounted for more than 80% of COVID-19 infections, more than 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 3 out of 4 deaths caused by COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, including the period before a vaccine was available, unvaccinated Hoosiers comprised 97.7% of COVID-19 infections, 99.96% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 99.98% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Indiana Department of Health. “I didn’t coin this phrase but this is, pretty much, a pandemic of the unvaccinated that we find ourselves in right now,” Holcomb said.

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Niki Kelly: Ending the COVID-19 public health emergency has a lot of symbolism attached from both sides. Those tired of the renewals by Gov. Eric Holcomb want to end the order to show the state is moving past the pandemic and back into normalcy and growth. But those pointing to rising case and hospitalization numbers say ending the order sends the wrong message – that Hoosiers no longer need to take precautions. So where is Holcomb on the topic? He told legislators three administrative changes he needed in law to “responsibly” end the order, then extended it through the year when they balked. “I don’t subscribe to either of those sides. I really don’t,” he told The Journal Gazette in a sit-down end-of-year interview. Legislators will hear comments on ending the public health emergency at 9 a.m. Dec. 16. The language has been filed in House Bill 1001 and the House Employment Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing. Another key part of the bill severely restricts employers from having vaccine mandates for employees. “COVID-19 is with us. It’s with us for a while; till it’s not. Our positivity rate is at a point that I don’t like. Our vaccination rate’s at a point I don’t like,” Holcomb said.

CBS4, Kristen Eskow: Gov. Eric Holcomb says he supports businesses that choose to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, despite a bill introduced by Indiana House Republicans to limit those mandates. The state’s daily new COVID-19 cases at have reached their highest levels since January, according to the Indiana Department of Health. State data shows 53% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. When asked how he would grade Indiana’s COVID-19 response, Holcomb responded, “Getting there, long way to go.” Holcomb says he will extend the public health emergency for another 30 days. Amid Indiana’s latest COVID-19 surge, Holcomb calls it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” that is impacting the entire country. “I’m just shouting from the rooftop that ‘Get vaccinated,’” Holcomb said. “This is the answer.” The governor also reiterated his opposition to legalizing marijuana in Indiana while it remains illegal at a federal level. He would like both Purdue University and Indiana University to study the medicinal benefits it might offer.

IndyStar, Kaitlin Lange: During the 2021 legislative session Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed more bills than he had in any previous session. Likewise, lawmakers voted to override more of his vetos than any other session. Lawmakers also filed numerous resolutions in an attempt to end Holcomb’s public health emergency declaration against his will. Holcomb is also entangled in a court battle against the General Assembly over a bill they passed in 2021 enabling them to call themselves back into legislative session. Still, when asked about his relationship with Republican lawmakers, Holcomb said there was no bad blood between them. “I was with the speaker of the House this morning,” Holcomb told IndyStar. “We have good relations. I was with a member in Oldenburg for fried chicken this Saturday. So I wouldn’t overstate one disagreement on a constitutional basis. I was with the president pro tem about a week ago for a sporting event just to have fun, and so those relationships are there.”

Associated Press, Tom Davies: With Indiana’s COVID-19 hospitalizations doubling in the past month, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb expressed frustration Tuesday at the “absurd” reasons some cite for refusing vaccinations, although he isn’t offering any new state actions to combat the spread of the virus (Davies, AP). Many members of the Republican-dominated Legislature are set for a second year to push measures handcuffing anti-virus efforts, this time a bill forcing businesses to grant broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements that could be voted upon soon after the new legislative session starts in early January. Holcomb recalled during a Statehouse interview about a woman telling him that she was glad he opposed President Joe Biden’s proposed vaccination mandates on large businesses, but also that she was disappointed Holcomb had received the COVID-19 vaccine because “I had a chip in me now.” “We deal with the absurd and we deal with facts and there’s a lot in between there for people to form their own opinions,” Holcomb told The Associated Press. “What I have to do is try to be persuasive enough so that folks understand that they’re going to learn it the easy way or the hard way, unfortunately, by being vaccinated or not.”

KPC News, Steve Garbacz: Gov. Eric Holcomb says he has the blueprints for Indiana’s future in his back pocket, with all the pieces starting to come into place to start aggressively building it. Although the ongoing pandemic is still a weight pulling down on some aspects of life in Indiana, Holcomb has otherwise switched back very much to a pre-pandemic mindset, with economic and community development first and foremost on his mind. “I know the plans that we have,” Holcomb said in a 15-minute, year-end virtual interview with KPC Media Group. “Suddenly in Indiana we’re building our state’s future like never before.” While economic development is where Holcomb wants the state to be driving, the pandemic is still a roadblock, albeit not as obstructive as it was at the same time a year ago.